UNC chief of pediatric surgery was first Black female pediatric surgeon in the United States

CHAPEL HILL, N.C. (WTVD) -- It was not that long ago that there were no Black women serving as pediatric surgeons in the United States. Not one.

That statistic could still be, if not for one woman's determination, perseverance and faith.

Andrea Hayes' journey started when she was just a baby.

"My mother tells me when I was just 2 or 3 years old that I said I wanted to be a baby doctor," Hayes said smiling. "I think God puts it in you and that's what I was supposed to do."

There were many times, however, Hayes wondered if that dream would ever come true.

From Dartmouth College Medical School, Hayes did her residency at the University of California Davis, while at the same time doing a two-year fellowship in molecular biology at the University of California San Francisco.

After that, Hayes decided and confided in her mentor, African American surgical icon Dr. Claude Organ, Jr.

"I told him I wanted to be a pediatric surgeon, and he didn't flinch," said Hayes.

Instead, he encouraged her. Not telling Hayes what she'd soon find out while applying for fellowships to get the necessary training.

"I was shocked," Hayes said, "When I didn't get in the first year I went back to my mentor and one of his colleagues said, 'Well you know the reason you're having trouble. Is there are none.' I said, 'What do you mean there are none?' He said 'There are no Black female surgeons in the United States so it's going to be hard for you to get in.' And I thought, it's the 90s. It's not the 60s, it's not the 40s."

The next year, she applied for a fellowship again and didn't get in.

OUR AMERICA: WOMEN FORWARD

Instead, Hayes accepted an offer to train for two years at St. Jude Children's Research Hospital and applied a third time.

"And still didn't get in. So by now I'm thinking," Hayes reflected, "Ok God. I know this is what You said You wanted me to do. All of my mentors were confused. We don't understand why you're not getting accepted."

Until one of her mentors started calling the hospitals where Hayes applied.

"And one of them said, 'Well it's not her. It's just that I can't take a chance training a Black female.' So it was the staunch reality that it really was the color of my skin and not my abilities to become a surgeon."

That little girl's dream seemed lost. Until an offer came from a surgery program in Canada.

Hayes trained there for two years and came back to the United States, got board certified in 2002 and became the first.

Eleven years of training after medical school, Hayes became the first African American female pediatric surgeon in America.

MORE: Find resources, organizations that support women

"It was confirmation to me that I was doing the work that I knew God had put me here to do," Hayes said. "It's been an uphill battle. It hasn't been easy. Anytime you're the first of anything it's not going to be easy. But it's one of the things that I'm really proud of because I'm able to help the women and even the men behind me and show them that you can be successful, you can do what you want to do despite how you look or what your religion is or anything."

Hayes achieved another first, becoming the first African American female chief of pediatric surgery at UNC Hospitals Children's Specialty Clinic. UNC recruited Hayes two and a half years ago from M.D. Anderson Cancer Center in Houston.

"I have to say that it is my faith in God that really allowed me to persevere," Hayes said. "As I've matured I realized that every barrier is not actually a barrier, every barrier is just an opportunity for me to progress more and what I've been put on this earth to do."

Since Dr. Hayes' achievement, 16 black women have become pediatric surgeons in the United States, according to a November 2020 list from the Society of Black Academic surgeons and the American Pediatric Surgical Association.

RELATED: Black woman from Orange County praised as key scientist behind COVID-19 vaccine
Copyright © 2021 WTVD-TV. All Rights Reserved.